#TBT: Neil deGrasse Tyson at IU

Recently, the news broke that Mr. Tyson faces allegations of sexual misconduct from three women. As the story develops, I’ll try to update this header. But I am going to leave this piece up, because it’s important to me to remind myself that people you admire aren’t always the same as the image they present publicly. It’s important to understand your heroes are multifaceted, and you often don’t see that dark side. You have to figure out for yourself if you can separate the art from the artist. I’m still working that out for myself. So, for the time being, I stand behind my piece.

I wrote this piece a year and a half ago, and never had anywhere to publish it. It was a great night, though, and I want to share that fun. Enjoy this throwback to March 2017.

March 22, 2017

For two hours Wednesday night, we got to be inside the head of an astrophysicist.

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke at the IU Auditorium on March 22, in a discussion titled “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies.”

He showed clips of famous movies and explained the accuracy of the science depicted.  Tyson showed a still from the 1996 “Mars Attacks!” and quipped, “We’re not having this conversation.”  Instead, he examined movies divided into two categories: those which try to get the science right, and those that get it right by accident.

Beginning the talk, Tyson quoted Mark Twain: “First get your facts straight, then distort them at your leisure.”

“The universe is far more intricate and nuanced…than anything we can imagine,” he added.

He warned us that we’d essentially paid for an astrophysics lecture; the audience replied with thunderous applause, and Tyson took a moment to double over in laughter.  The night was divided into several chapters, ranging from topics from the fields of astrophysics (Space Exploration, Killer Asteroids), to physics (Surface Tension), to mathematics (Geometry), and everything in between.

At the slide titled ‘Physic: Thermodynamics,’ he turned to the audience with a shrug: “Again, you paid to come see a slide reading this.”

Here are some highlights:

-“Armageddon” broke more laws of physics “per minute” than any other movie.  Tyson complained about asteroids with “GPS locators for Manhattan monuments.”  The only sentence in the entire movie that’s accurate was that uttered by Billy Bob Thornton, when he described the “big-ass sky.”

-A Heineken commercial which accurately depicted how we send rovers to Mars…only to make it morph into a bar.  Their fatal flaw was assuming aliens “would have butts,” or even need to sit like a human.

-Describing latitude and longitude supplied by the aliens in “Close Encounters,” Tyson remarked, “In the day, you were a badass if you knew how to refold a map.”

-Tyson threw some shade at geologists and other hard sciences for over-naming things: what do we call the big red spot on Jupiter?  “Jupiter’s Red Spot.” The beginning of the universe? “The Big Bang.” “That’s how we roll,” Tyson said. “The universe is hard enough to try and lay down a lexicon smokescreen.”  At audience laughter, he added, “You know I’m telling the truth!”

-The accuracy of an off-handed mention of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (though wrongly cited as the Special theory), which was correctly written on a napkin in a bar by Dolph Lundgren in “Expendables 2” –Lundgren actually holds degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering.

-The lyric “frozen fractals” sung by Idina Menzel in Disney’s “Frozen.”  “She sang ‘fractals,’” Tyson shouted, “in a Disney princess movie!”

-Technical difficulties temporarily forced him to switch to showing his own computer screen as they worked to fix the problem.  An audience member shouted out “Show us your browser history!” Tyson looked up, “That’s gonna be a no.”

-Detailing time travel’s depiction in movies, Tyson brought up “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and the scene in which Bill and Ted decide to go back in time to hide the Sheriff’s keys, which he described as “the greatest time travel scene ever written.”  He offered a warning to those who hadn’t seen it: “I will describe this movie to you,” he said, “please don’t question what I say.”

-The anecdote describing ten years of annoyance at the accuracy put into minor details in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” yet the completely wrong sky was put in for the scene when Rose is staring deliriously up at the sky while waiting for rescue from the icy waves.  He said he’d approached Cameron several times about the goof, and the director had played it off as, “It was added in post-production,” saying he didn’t have control over it. For the anniversary release of the film, Tyson said he received a call from someone working on the movie, “Mr. Cameron says you’ve got a sky for me to use.”  He punched the air: “Hell yeah I’ve got a sky for you to use! I run a Planetarium, I know me some sky.”

He concluded the night by fielding a few questions from the audience.

One of the first was from an 11 year old who started with the sentence, “I’m a huge supporter of the colonization of Venus.”  Tyson explained that, despite the fact Venus is our sister planet in many ways, “you would vaporize quickly…while you were crushed to death” by the intense force the planet’s gravity.

He ended the night by explaining he still had a sliver of hope, despite strong anti-science sentiment which appeared from leaders: “It’s a free country –people should think and believe what they want,” he explained. “But the issue is not the leader…it’s the electorate.”

Tyson stressed the importance of education and openness from the science and academic communities.

“It’s really about K through 12 education,” he said. “You just have to know how to ask questions.”

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